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Using Parts of Speech to Improve Your Writing

Programmers do it, why don’t you?

Programmers have been using syntax highlighting to improve their code for quite some time. Highlighting syntax provides you with a more structured view on your code and it helps you spot typos. Can highlighting adjectives, adverbs, verbs, nouns, and conjunctions improve your writing style?

All writers make mistakes. What makes us blind to our own writing errors, is, as Stephen King said, the fear of writing:

I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. If one is writing for one’s own pleasure, that fear may be mild—timidity is the word I’ve used here. If, however, one is working under deadline—a school paper, a newspaper article, the SAT writing sample—that fear may be intense.

The fear of writing crap will create a bias that hides the mistakes from your consciousness. A tool that highlights parts of speech will counter this bias. Everyone can use help with highlighting parts of speech because everyone fears writing.

“The adverb is not your friend”

If you care about writing, you need to treat adverbs like monsters. When it comes to monsters and writing Stephen King has the best tips:

Adverbs, you will remember from your own version of Business English, are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. With the passive voice, the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously; it is the voice of little boys wearing shoe polish mustaches and little girls clumping around in Mommy’s high heels. With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

Kill the adverb monsters. Then kill the adjective monsters.

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.”

Loved by the amateur, hated by the experienced writer, and handled with delicacy by the pro, the adjective is one of the cheapest and at the same time most expensive stylistic element in writing. Handled with mastery it will make your writing shine and make it classy. Thrown there without care can cost you dearly.

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place. This is not to disparage adjectives and adverbs; they are indispensable parts of speech.”–Strunk & White

If you care about grammar you will notice that writers and writing teachers diss adjectives and adverbs with adjectives and adverbs:

“Adjectives are frequently the greatest enemy of the substantive.” – Voltaire

“Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something.” – Ezra Pound

“[Whoever writes in English] is struggling against vagueness, against obscurity, against the lure of the decorative adjective.” – George Orwell

“[I was taught] to distrust adjectives as I would later learn to distrust certain people in certain situations.” – Ernest Hemingway

“The adjective is the banana peel of the parts of speech.” – Clifton Paul Fadiman

“[The adjective] is the one part of speech first seized upon and worked to death by novices and inferior writers.” – J.I. Rodale

“When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them — then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.” – Mark Twain

“Most adjectives are also unnecessary. Like adverbs, they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don’t stop to think that the concept is already in the noun.” – William Zissner

In the examples above, just one author managed to completely avoid adjectives and adverbs. Can you spot it? Friends of the adjective and the adverb cry foul and accuse critiques of “Do as I say, not as I do”. If you go through the above examples you will see that the adverbs and adjectives used by masters carry meaning. What they oppose is adjectives that bloat. Strunk and White do not oppose a grammatical category, they oppose unnecessary words. There are three solid reasons to delete adjectives:

  1. Write only when you have something to say, do not inflate the void with plastic flowers
  2. Do not tell the reader how to feel, make them feel it themselves
  3. Set every word with both purpose and emotion

And this leads to an often misunderstood rule. Reading handbooks about writing you will often encounter the rule that you should avoid repetition, especially when it comes to nouns.

Repeat Nouns Consciously

Letters repeat, words repeat. When we speak we use identical words over and over. And there is nothing wrong with that. In contrary. Avoiding repetition at all cost will destroy your voice and turn writing into a gauntlet. Using the right word depends on whether

  1. you know what you are doing and
  2. you feel what you are doing
  3. you mean what you say

Repetition strengthens the structure if it is constructed consciously and with emotion. It can be applied as a rhetorical device. But in the same way, fear will hide our mistakes from our eyes and hearts, unwanted repetition will slip past the cracks and turn your text into a word mill. Nouns are the subject and object of your speech. If you speak or write coherently, you are forced to use and reuse the same nouns and names. Highlighting your nouns will help you canning the text for its nominal structure and find unwanted repetition. Unwanted repetition creates unwanted coherence. Which leads us to the last but not least part of speech…

Conjunctions seem harmless…

…but you may have heard that you should avoid starting a sentence with it. But why not? you may ask. “But” is only one out of a series of coordinating conjunctions that need to be handled with care. There are more:

Conjunction List
Coordinating for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so Remember with the acronym FANBOYS.
Subordinating A : after, although, as, as if, as long as, as much as, as soon as, as though
B : because, before, by the time
E : even if, even though
I : if, in order that, in case
L : lest
O : once, only if
P : provided that
S : since, so that
T : than, that, though, till
U : unless, until
W : when, whenever, where, wherever, while
Correlative both… and
either… or
neither… nor
not only… but also
whether… or

Conjunctions join words, phrases, and clauses. Therefore p Putting conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence needs to be done with heart and mind. The worst thing you can do with them is—you guessed it—using them without mind or heart, using them without thinking or caring about them, using them without meaning them. When you apply conjunctions to suggest a logic that does not exist. Good thinking is logical. Fake logic, more than fake adjectives, unwanted repetition or weak verbs is one of the hardest things to spot. Let’s start with an easy example:

I think you are wrong. Therefore, I’m right.

What is wrong with “therefore”? Unless used with intentional humor, therefore requires a stringent logic beyond a reasonable doubt. “I think you are wrong therefore I’m right.” is far from logical. “I am right” needs more proof than, “I think you are wrong.” A lot of these mistakes go back to logical fallacies like:

Fallacy Form
False Dilemma If A is not always true, then A must always false.
Correlation is Not Causality A happened after B, therefore A caused B.
Argument from Ignorance A is true because A has not been proven false.
Appeal Authority A is true because good C says A.
Guilt by Association A is bad because bad D believes A.
Argument from Consequence A is true because if it were false that would be bad.
Appeal to the Bandwagon A is true because many say it’s true.

But most often, conjunctions are just put in sentences without any connection at all.

He was quite tall, however, I never thought that he was particularly smart

Being tall and being smart are completely unrelated. Pointing out examples may sound sounds funny, but we often use false connectors unknowingly. When we speak we use them as fillers or to communicate coherence. In writing, we need to be more careful. The literal word cannot hide behind tone and apply to logical benevolence.

To be or not to be is not the question: Pump up the Jam!

The verb to be is weak because it only conveys existence it does not show movement. Weak verbs indicate passive voice and nominal style. Avoid them all. Weak verbs are lame take the dynamic out of freeze the sentence. They lead to paint a static image dominated by nouns, “has” and “is”. “Use strong verbs, avoid weak verbs” is easier said than done. In practice, you will often end up rethinking the phrase and find a way to describe your thought through movements rather than describing a photograph.

Weak Verb: Photo Strong Verb: Movie
The lion was fighting with the antelope. The lion attacked the antelope.
The people responsible for the disaster are still employed by Facebook. The people that caused the disaster still work at Facebook.
The island was in an evolving state. The island evolved.
I have questions for your teacher. Please ask your teacher.
I have a call with her on Tuesday. I will call her on Tuesday.
iA Writer is accomplishing more than you think. iA Writer accomplishes more than you think.
Paris is the place where Federer never beat Nadal. Federer never beat Nadal in Paris.
Nina has flowers in her garden. Flowers grow in Nina’s garden.
Your writing is inspiring to a lot of people You inspire a lot of people.
Retirement is in his plans for next year. He plans to retire next year.

The easiest way t To spot weak verbs is to highlight them. It shocks when you realize how lame your verbs are.

How do I catch all of them?

Code editors highlight code syntax. Highlighting code syntax helps coders understanding structure and spot structural mistakes. Highlighting parts of speech in a text editor fulfills a similar function. Syntax highlight helps you spotting stylistic errors such as bloat through adjectives and adverbs, illogical conjunctions, weak verbs and repetitive nouns. Try it.

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Writing Tips

Using Parts of Speech to Improve Your Writing

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